Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Math for Journalists

The head of the UTSC joint journalism program, Dr. Karen McCrindle, recently told me she was concerned that journalism students need more teaching about the importance of math. When we met last summer to overhaul the course I teach, called Intro to News Reporting, she suggested we spend more time covering how to count, how to do business stories and how to understand percentages and ratios...all with the goal to enable the students to write more in depth stories.

I agreed with her, as on a personal level, it's a little discussed but often true anecdote among journalists in my circle that many journalists (including me) are weaker in maths and sciences then we are in other subjects. Lots of students raise their hands when I do a straw poll in j-school classes when I ask them "Who sucks at math?"

This is ironic because I spent many years as a business reporter/anchor for CTV News net and Report on Business Television, where I learned to understand and report on financial statements, stock market movements, gold futures, and other business stories.

In fact, aside from business stories, one of the most useful skills I learned over my nearly 30 years as a journalist, has been how to count crowds at an event. Why is this useful? Because the officials will usually overestimate the crowds (stories usually go something like this: "Organizers say 1 million people attended the Caribana Parade in Toronto.") while police and other law enforcement authorities like to underestimate the crowds, especially at riots or protests.

But numbers matter for journalists, not just in story writing, but also in calculating how long a story runs in seconds, how many stories will fit into a radio or television newscast, and how many seconds you have to trim from a piece of video to meet the lineup editor's request that your story run 1:40 and no more. So as a writer, editor, anchor, and executive producer of our college radio and television students' newscasts, I have become pretty good with counting.

Plus, you'd think that being married to an accountant and having helped to write parts of his three financial accounting textbooks would have also raised my number literacy.

Well... think again.

Talking with Anne Lavrih, a colleague from 680 News yesterday, we discovered plenty of similarities: she has a son the same age as as mine, she's been in radio for a hundred years, as I have, and we will both be teaching at Centennial this winter. She also mentioned that she's turning 47 on Dec 31.

"Ha ha I'm older then you by 2 months," I said, thinking that on October 11 of this year, I turned 47, too. She replied that she was born in 1962. "Impossible," I retorted. "I'm 47 and I'm from 1961."

Friends, two months after my birthday, I have now realized, that journalists really do suck at math. The bad news? I'm not 47. I'm 48! My husband says it's not my lack of ability in math -- it's just that I've now started counting backwards.

Happy New Year to all!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

How much is it worth?

As we come to the final day of classes in journalism school, many students (and their teacher!) are frantically trying to finish all their projects and assignments, writing them, and..in my case, marking them.

It's been a tough semester for me personally, because I caught swine flu (H1N1) in November, and was in bed for a week, too sick to leave the house for a second week, and too weak to do much more then the minimum of work in the third and fourth week. I know a lot of my students have had their own problems this semester, too: family troubles, illness, financial issues, trying to juggle work and school and life. We are all trying to balance all our commitments.

But something happened in one of my classes that was so unexpected, something I hadn't encountered before, that it's made me pause to try to make sense of it.

I was teaching a workshop about a skill they will need to use to survive in journalism --writing obituaries. It was on the course outline. The students knew about it. And these obituaries aren't the ones you have to pay for when a loved one dies and you pay by the word. These are news features which are run the next day, written by a journalist, when someone famous like actor Heath Ledger, or Michael Jackson dies..and also, when not-so- famous people die, but who lived interesting lives.

They will need to be able to write a feature obituary about someone's life whether they work at small newsrooms, or large. People die, even not-famous people, and journalists serve the public by writing sensitive, creative and interesting features about how these people lived, and what their big achievements were. And introducing the value of this person's life after they die, to an audience that didn't know them when they were alive.

Like covering sports, city hall, a court story, an accident, entertainment, or politics...writing an obit as a new feature has its own formula, and code words. And they will need to know this stuff not only once they have graduated, but as soon as in a few weeks time, in the next semester, when they start work as card-carrying reporters for the local community newspaper and online site. And that will be for marks!

After the first hour of class today, a student holds up their cellphone, in class, telling me there is another student on the other end of the line, who is calling in from somewhere else, to find out "How much is this worth?"

I was dumfounded. And then..incredulous. And also -- angry. Then I thought it was funny. But it's not funny.

Do I have to make everything worth a lot of marks, in order to get someone to receive the gift of knowledge and self-discovery? Doesn't that have any value on its own? Why will some students not read an assigned chapter, or research a website that I ask them to look at, so that we can talk about it in class, unless it is "worth" marks for them to do it?

How do you measure worth? For some students, only in marks, I guess.

And that's too bad.

Sure I get it. It's a busy time of year. They have other commitments, other assignments for other courses that are worth more. They have family problems. Work. Other issues which I don't even know about. So it's not a personal thing and I'm trying not to take it personally.

In fact, I experience this "weighing" and "worth" by students all the time. In another course where I teach television news reporting to senior year students, if they have a big project due in my class worth 16%, and one worth 12% in another class, but that one is a print story, they probably will do the print story first, and on time, because it's easier for them, then do the TV story late, because this video story requires lugging gear around, editing, booking cameras, fighting with Final Cut Pro, and writing. This is especially true if they don't see themselves using video skills in their careers (this is a mistaken belief, by the way.)

But not coming to class unless it's "worth" something for marks? Well, what does "worth" mean?

You can learn a lot of "worthy" things in classroom discussions, from interaction with peers, and hearing from a mentor who has experience and advice to share with up-and-coming rookies in the profession.

Marks don't matter in the outside world, where you might be asked to take out someone's cancerous tumour, but if you didn't come to class to learn how to do the proceedure while you were in med school, and you didn't do the reading because no marks were attached, well, then, what was the "worth" of that session you missed? A lot. Especially to the patient.

If a famous actor was teaching a class on character, but there were no marks attached to one particular exercise, would it be "worth" it for the student to come and do the exercise anyway? So that when the student acts in their next film, or stage production, they will have learned one way to expand and grow as an actor, and put it to good use?

I am sad that for some students, worth is measured only in marks.

I am also incredulous that when a student who has chosen not to come to class, somehow they or their colleagues think it is acceptable for them to phone up during class to inquire of each other whether they should come to class or not. And then have the chutzpah to ask the same question of me! Do they want me really, to give them my permission to skip? Are they really looking for a parent-figure who will penalize them if they don't show up?

It's like when my friend in high school showed me how to smoke. Afterward, I came home and informed my mother --proudly -- that I had just learned how to smoke. I remember my mother telling me that there are some things she'd rather she didn't know about.

This isn't high school. Students make choices. I understand that. But I just wish that when they make their choices, they realize they will have to live with the consequences...not because they lost marks, but because they lost something more important: learning.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Covering Toronto City Hall "worst day of my life": journalism student

Earlier this week, I accompanied my class of journalism students to Toronto City Hall for what I hoped would be their biggest assignment yet: covering a monthly meeting of council, in Canada's largest city.

We had prepared for it in class the week before, looking at the Toronto.ca website, reviewing how journalists find stories in a municipal reporting beat, discussing how to contact councillors, how city hall works, and how Toronto is a great city for journalists because so much information is posted by the city online, and publicly accessible.

We even had set up a meeting with Toronto Star reporter Vanessa Lu, who spent over an hour with the students in the Colin Vaughan Press Gallery, discussing the ins and outs, and highs and lows of reporting on municipal politics in Toronto. She then took the class on a tour of the building, introduced them to Don Wanagas, a senior communications official in Mayor David Miller's office (a former National Post journalist). She introduced Coun. Frances Nunziata to the group, and was so enthusiastic about what a great beat this was, that I was hopeful the students would be interested in it for their future careers.

On the agenda that day were at least two meaty stories: equal ice time for girls' house league hockey players, and, a controversial new billboard bylaw that could raise $10 million in extra tax money for the arts.

I had to leave at 2:30 p.m. but felt confident the students would be able to bag a story by the end of the session, and advised them they may have to stay quite late, as council often goes to the very end.

I told them to ignore the "notices of motion" and much of the procedural stuff which was underway, and focus on the actual speeches and interviews, post-vote, with the councillors and lobbyists for various sides.

They were supposed to write a hard news story about the council meeting, and file it by 5 p.m. the next day, no matter what.

When I left, my students all had their audio recorders and notebooks out and were sitting in the public gallery trying intently to follow the proceedings.

It turns out their first exposure to a Toronto City Council meeting, shocked them.

"It was the worst day of my life," lamented one student, yesterday, in class, in the aftermath of the marathon sitting, where, by the way, council didn't end up voting on either issue, but instead, postponed debate until Wednesday, or maybe even Friday.

"How do the councillors even know what they are voting on?" asked another student, referring to the recorded votes called by Speaker Sandra Bussin, which just identify the issue by it's number MM - 1234567 , not by the subject matter.

They also were shocked at how one woman, a member of the public, "a crazy lady" was heckling members of council so long and loudly that even she realized she'd better stop, at which point, Bussin agreed with her, thankfully.

I told my students that many council meetings I have covered have been like this one: last year, when another group of students and I attended the December 2008 council meeting, a fleet of taxi drivers sat in the public gallery, cheering or booing a proposal to limit their access to non-airport fare pickups in Toronto. Security guards had to handcuff one taxi driver who was protesting too loudly, and escort him out of the chamber.

In the end, I made them write their stories by deadline, and suggested they mention the vote was put off.

Today, the National Post's Peter Kuitenbrouwer, who I think went to journalism school with me at Carleton University in the 1980s, talked about our class outing, in his column about city council.

Messy? Loud? Democracy in action? Maybe. Certainly it was a good lesson for budding journalists not to get bogged down in the superficial acting of posturing politicians, or fall for the staged public relations events (Leaside Girls Hockey association players attending council in uniform, clutching dolls), and focus on writing about what is important: changes and new laws that could affect the 2.7 million people who live and work in Toronto.

Read some of their stories on the Centennial Journalism online news site, Centennialjournalism.wordpress.com

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

minus 10% - accuracy in journalism

Most of my students know me as "the teacher who takes off 10 per cent" for misspelled proper names and CP Style infractions. I always tell them that the reason I do it, is to encourage them to be super super careful when they write stories -- to check spellings of people's names, and make sure --especially in obituaries -- to be accurate because it will be clipped out, by the family, and laminated, and put in scrap books and kept.

The -10 per cent reputation even prompted some of them to buy me a lovely t shirt last year, with - 10 % on it. I wasn't sure if it was a compliment or an insult, but my husband told me to wear it proudly to school the next day, and take it in a good way.

I know that this -10 per cent is not a happy thing for some students to read on their papers when I hand them back. I know how frustrated they seem to act when I give them one. I don't do it to be mean spirited, and I don't sit at my computer editing stories and rubbing my hands together with glee like the Wicked Witch of the West, when I find one. Truly! I don't.

Today, some of my students in the University of Toronto/Centennial College joint journalism program had a chance to turn the tables on me. And to their credit, they were very diplomatic about it.

I had written a story for them to run in their local news paper, Observer, about a court trial now underway in Ontario Superior Court. We all covered it for a class assignment. And despite being careful, and checking, I apparently spelled the victim's name wrong! Oops. When I came to work today, one of the students showed me where they'd posted my original story on the blackboard, with a nice green highlight through the mistake and a very tasteful -10% mark next to it. "I fixed it," one of the students told me.

They may be dining out on this for a while!

And for the record, Colves Meggoe's name is spelled with an "e".

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Remembering to be sensitive covering a murder trial

A police officer assigned to security duty in the lobby of Toronto's Superior Court of Justice gave me a much needed reminder today that being a reporter also means being aware of how your behaviour at a scene when you are on the job covering a story, might affect other people.
I was waiting at 361 University Avenue today, covering the first degree murder trial of two men suspected of shooting a well-known Malvern resident, Colves Meggoe in November of 2006.
In the lobby, during the lunch recess, I sat beside a group of high school students from CHAT, a Toronto school, who were there waiting for their teacher to turn up. I assume this was part of their law and justice courses. Some of the students were playing a silly game while they waited (the teachers had not arrived yet) -- the girls would call out "DAAA-AD" or "MO-MMM" in a voice like they would use at home to call their own parents, and then wait to see which lawyer, or Crown prosecutor, or court employee who was walking by, would hear it, and turn their heads, thinking they had heard their own children calling to them. When one of the unsuspecting adults fell for the trick, the teens burst into giggles all around.
Okay, teens are teens, and so the police officer who was in the lobby didn't come over to reprimand them.
But when their energetic teacher arrived just before 2 p.m. and announced to the students in a loud voice that "the second floor is murder murder murder" and proceeded to describe for the students some of the details of the charges in each case and which court rooms the students were to go to, that was too much for this sensitive policeman.
He came over, and right in front of the students, interrupted the teacher, and reminded him that some of the people walking through the lobby were victims of crime, or survivors of victims, or were otherwise in the court because of tragedies, so he should be more respectful and dignified in his attitude, and his behaviour. There was an embarassed silence, and the teacher, to his credit, apologized, and lowered his tone of voice.

After words, I talked with the policeman, who told me he was happy to have this new job of lobby duty. He prefers it, despite today's incident, because he told me he couldn't stand being inside the courtrooms anymore, where he had spent years as a security officer, listening to testimony about all sorts of crimes.

"I know what human beings are capable of, " he said.

It was a sobering lesson and one I needed. Earlier, during the morning session of the trial, we were in a Voir Dire situation, when the jury was out of the room while counsel discussed some point of the trial with the judge. It was boring, so I started whispering to the people sitting around me, even pretended to play Xs and Os with some of them. My whispering attracted the attention of the clerk, who came over and chided me for being disruptive in a courtroom. He was completely right, and I should have known better.

I forgot for a moment, that while for a journalist, covering a trial is a job -- for the victims, and relatives and lawyers and police in the courthouse, the proceedings are deadly serious. And it's not a time or place to be disrespectful.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


This week, I'm teaching my students about covering police and fire stories at the journalism school of Centennial College/University of Toronto.
And today, our campus in East York gets locked down/evacuated because of a bomb threat, with 7 fire trucks and #332 Station responding to assist the police as they deal with this situation.
I am home, sick today, luckily, but I wish I was there with the students to show them how it's done in real life.
And now, the power goes out at the HP campus..where the other journalism courses are held. What is going on?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Centennial College student Brad Pritchard scoop gets picked up by Toronto Star


One of the things that is so satisfying about teaching journalism students is when one of them gets a big scoop, and they sell it to the mainstream media outlets. Or mainstream media outlets pick it up.
This week, Brad Pritchard, a student in his final semester at Centennial College, published a story in the campus newspaper The Courier, based on his exclusive interview with the student whose van contained a home-made alternative fuel source, and caused half of Scarborough to be evacuated earlier this fall, and who was arrested and detained by Toronto Police.
No one else in the mainstream media was able to get the interview from the horse's mouth. Which is why Brad's piece is so great. And is another example of why working for the campus student newspaper is often a ticket to success after you graduate. Kudos to Brad, and to Matt Yuill and the other staff and reporters at The Courier.
By the way, the fact that it was Brad is not surprising. He won best interviewer last spring in Advanced Interviewing class with a "man hug" from Cabral Richards of The Score. He was also able to score an interview with Conrad Black, from prison, a few months earlier for a different assignment.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

CFRB interviewed my Roller Coaster Rider....

An update to the Behemoth riding teenager story which I did that ran Aug 4 on CBC Radio across Canada.
Thanks to following the Twitter feeds of Tim Hill, the 12 year old who is riding Behemoth and posting his count online on CWMania, I discovered that he'd received a phone call from the producer of CFRB Radio's Ryan Carroll show, and they scheduled an interview with him for this past Thursday about his feat.
Copying is the sincerest form of flattery...eh?
As a journalist, this should make me upset --it's an enterprise journalism story which I worked hard on to break, and when another media outlet "steals" the same story for their own audience without doing any of the original work, it is often irritating for the originating reporter.
In this case, I am slightly annoyed but also pleased for Tim, because he deserves wide attention, and also for myself, that some other major media outlet heard the story, and agreed with me that it was a great story to pursue.
Two sides of the coin.
I'd be interested to hear what you readers think about this. Is it just an insider/industry professional courtesy ethical issue, or do non-journalists even care about which media outlet got the story first?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Roller coasters and the power of the Internet

This past week, I've been working on a short documentary for CBC Radio on folks who love roller coasters. From left to right: Chris Uzun, Tim Hill and Greg Hill about to ride Behemoth. July 17, 2009.

(Full disclosure here: I am a 'fraidy cat and only went on Dragon Fire once this summer at Canada's Wonderland to prove to my kids that I was not a 'wuss' -- never again! My neck hurt for two days after the ride.)

And thanks to the World Wide Web, I was able to find some amazing sources for my story about folks who love roller coasters.
Starting from a tip from my son who's friend heard online about some guy who'd been riding Behemoth for 11 hours so far at Canada's Wonderland in Vaughan, Ontario, I decided to Google to see if I could find this person.
I eventually landed on a site called CWMania, and so I did surf a little through the postings, until I found what I was looking for.
I joined the site, identified myself as a reporter, and asked the webmaster to help me track down folks who ride Behemoth a lot.
Behemoth, for those of you who don't know, is the fastest, tallest rollercoaster at Wonderland, and the fastest in Canada, since opening in 2008.
I also emailed the person I thought was my 11 hour guy.
I used my gmail account, and waited to see what would happen.
A day later, I got back emails from both the webmaster and the person I was looking for!
Both agreed to help me.
I also got emails from a half dozen other riders, with some useful anecdotes for the story.
As for my 11 hour rider, and his brother, who also rides, before interviewing thim in person, I did make sure they were who they said they were, first, by checking not only their Facebook accounts but their Twitter accounts, and that of their relatives. I did the same for an 18 year old rider who is doing the same thing.
Then I set up the interview and a date and time and place to meet the teens near Wonderland. I also followed it up with a telephone call before the actual interview meeting, to confirm it in person over the telephone.
The other amazing thing about the Internet, and crowdsourcing, was the help which I received from some other members of this CWMania website.
One email sent me some links to scholarly journal articles about roller coaster riders, and psychologists, the information from which I wound up using to find an interview with a Dr. Michael Otto, from Boston University, who is an expert in coasters and phobias.
I emailed him, and also telephoned his office in Boston, and left messages on a Sunday, and on the Monday, when I called his office and spoke to his publicist in person, she told me she had already passed on my request for an interview, and he did call me back! Bingo.
Also, his colleague, another psychologist from Harvard, Dr. Brian Newmark, also called me back, after I'd sent him a note via his wife's Facebook account, and had left a message on their home answering machine, after having looked up the telephone number on the white pages online.
I also am thankful for the Internet and CWMania's website, as it put me in touch with a terrific expert on coaster enthusiasts from Mississauga, Paul Schroeder, who I researched by first reading his blog, and Myspace account, then asked him to meet me for an interview. We did speak on the phone first, and then met at the CBC for an interview.
He's also sent me links to other coaster stories which I am grateful for.
So the moral of the story for journalism students is: act on tips from sources and people around you, and use the Internet to do your initial research for the journalism, but make sure you use old fashioned journalistic techniques: always check who you are interviewing, research using the Internet if you can, and then do follow up research (telephone due diligence) before meeting anyone for an interview. And ladies, do the interviews in a public place.
The Internet is also amazing to help you make your stories better and more thorough: as I learned with this rollercoaster story, your sources know more than you about their field of expertise, and can point you in directions that you would never have thought of on your own.

My piece on rollercoaster enthusiasts is supposed to air on the CBC's World at Six on Aug 3. I wrote a full online print story on the phenomenon, to accompany the radio piece, for CBC.ca.

Here are both stories.

By the way, one of my rollercoaster interviewees gave me the surprise of the summer:
in emailing back and forth, to try to establish his credentials and whether he'd be a good interview, I asked him what he did for a living. He emailed back that he had a paper route.
I asked him how old he was.
He wrote back that he was 12.
I was stunned!
Then, I immediately worried that his parents might be upset about a reporter chatting with a 12 year old online.
So I asked him to ask his parents if it was okay for him to be chatting with me.
He suggested to have me send him some kind of waiver form that they could sign.
I don't actually have such a thing but I did eventually speak on the phone with his mother, and she felt relieved about this.
Maybe they Googled me and learned that I was who I said I was.
Again, the power of the Internet.
Here is some raw video I took showing the Behemoth station where riders enter and exit.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Harry Potter helps reporter cover a story about Facebook and privacy

Canada's Privacy Commissioner released a report about Facebook yesterday basically criticizing the social networking giant for not adequately protecting users' private information.
I was reporting for CBC National Radio News, out of Toronto, although the report was released at a news conference in Ottawa.
I was assigned to cover the story and had a little over 5 hours to get two radio news stories done: one for The World This Hour, and the longer piece for The World at Six.
Deadline for the first show was 4 but in my mind, I said 3 (to make sure I was ready). Deadline for the next was 5 (but I said 4 in my mind, same reason.)
Getting the tape of the press conference was easy -- CBC Newsworld broadcast it live, at 11 so we recorded it, and some colleagues dubbed the audio directly into CBC's editing software called Dalet Plus.
But how to put the story in context, and how to make it interesting for listeners?
We needed a tech expert --I thought of calling Jesse Hirsh, the CBC's in house tech expert, but also I knew him as my expert resource person in a recent Centennial College summit we had hosted in May about the future of journalism. I didn't have to call him myself, as it turns out he was on CBC Newsworld directly after the Privacy Commissioner's report came out. Again, audio was available.
Same thing with the tech lawyers from Ottawa, who had launched the original complaints. I wanted tape, and planned to call Michael Geist's technology watchdog organization at the University of Ottawa. I had interviewed him myself last year for a story on unlocking cellphones. But again, I didn't have to call him as CBC had already done an interview with one of their lawyers Jordan Plener, so there was tape available.
As for finding a spokesman for Facebook, I first surfed their corporate site and read announcements from their chief privacy officer, Chris Kelly.
Normally I don't like using other journalist's stuff in my work, if I can avoid it. I like to do my own interviews, and ask my own questions. But in this case, with the huge resources of the CBC at my disposal, there was no reason to do double interviews.
Still, I wanted to make the story my own. So as I always try to do, I knew we needed to start the story with real people, who use Facebook.
Where could I find these people? Well, at mid day in downtown Toronto, lots of people would be on the streets. But what theme would the story have? That's when I thought of going to the Cineplex movie complex in the Entertainment district to find folks going to see the Harry Potter film. The films have been coming out about as long as Facebook has been operating (2004)
So that's where I headed.
Didn't think to ask Cineplex head office in advance for permission to record audio and interview patrons inside. Didn't have time. Should have.
I could have just come in, turned on my tape recorder and gathered sound in the lobby, and they probably wouldn't have noticed me. But I was up front about it, representing the CBC as I did, so I acted responsibly, and asked permission.
The manager said no, and although she tried to ask her supervisor to let me do this, the answer from head office was "No."
No matter.
So I left the main lobby, and stood on the street right outside.
No permission needed on the street.
Got some great quotes from Harry Potter movie goers of all ages.
Raced back to the newsroom and filed my 2 stories.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

New Journalism Tool Box for reporters

At a recent conference which I helped moderate in Toronto, we discussed how journalists need to expand their storytelling skills by capturing video and audio as they cover events. Now the CBC.ca has written a piece about this must-have skill, as Iphones and Blackberrys and point and shoot cameras are capturing news, albeit not always with the high quality traditional TV news videography standards.

See the part where they quoted me! It's near the end.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

CTV was wrong airing Stephane Dion's interview false starts?

Last fall, in October 2008,I posted this entry in my blog discussing the Dion  interview.

It came about in class, when Centennial journalism students discussed this controversial interview done by ATV showing hiccups and false starts by then Liberal leader Stephane Dion. Our journalism students felt strongly that Stephane Dion should have known better, as a seasoned politician, and should have responded using his media training to be "on message" no matter how confusing or convoluted the question was.

Other students felt that CTV had broken an implied promise not to air the bloopers.

But most put the blame on Dion himself, because there are standards which journalists apply to public figures, and he should have handled himself better.

Now, it appears, CTV has had its knuckles rapped by the Canadian Broadcast Standards agency.
Here is the decision:

Read the j-source website take on this: 

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Future of Journalism is Agile. Small. Lethal.

Brave New(s) World, a conference held Thursday May 28, 2009 at Centennial College in Toronto gathered together some of the more forward thinking journalists, students, and educators to try to make some sense of the turmoil now bringing about many changes in the news business around the world.

The conference had a keynote speech via Skype by the author of "What Would Google Do?" Jeff Jarvis, from New York, and then 4 breakout sessions where the thinkers and experts tried to make sense of the changes affecting journalism, and where they saw the industry in the future.

I had the pleasure of moderating one of the afternoon panels, entitled "The New Journalism Toolbox" together with my industry expert, Jesse Hirsh.

Our job was to get the delegates to think about what "tools" a new journalist/cub reporter coming out of j-school will need to survive in the Brave New(s) World. But also, where we think the new journalist will go in the future.

Several weeks ago, preparing for my moderator job, I came up with my top 10 list of tools which I thought journalism students needed to have to succeed. 
My list included crowdsourcing (getting stories from ordinary "citizen" journalists), use of Twitter, Audioboo, qik.com, Audacity, RSS feeds, mindcasting (from Jay Rosen), photoskills and how to do slideshows and photogalleries, how to live blog using CoveritLive, etc.

I thought I needed to focus literally on the new tools and platforms which the modern journalist needs to be able to be familiar with, in order to tell their stories in the digital age of online journalism.

What a reassuring surprise for me to discover during the summit that the people who participated in my breakout session The New Journalism Toolbox, are convinced that the tools which young journalists need now are actually the same tried and true ones I learned are the most important when I began my career 27 years ago:

1) love journalism
2) see it as a public service/be a shit disturber/(Tim Knight/TV Trainer)
3) tell stories in a clear language
4) be ethical
5) use the new tools/technology to look for stories outside of the box, from ordinary people (Kris Reyes, Citytv)
6) Know your audience and what tools to use to tell the story. 
7) develop a BRAND (become an expert in something) Intrapreneurship (Rahul Gupta, NewsFIX, and  Michael Brooke of Concrete Wave)
8) use technology to be FASTEST to tell the story. Be NIMBLE (Steve Humphrey, NewsFix)
9) Be able to cut through the clutter  of live chats, Tweets and blogs to find the story and tell it to your audience
10) Be Small, Agile. Lethal. (Jesse Hirsh)

All the basic things which make up a well rounded journalist of the old-school type. The twist is, they are able to harness the "new-fangled" technology to tell stories without having to rely soley on the mainstream news media outlets, or authority, as the limiting "box". Thanks to the power of the Internet, journalists can tell stories directly to an audience through blogs, Tweets, etc. This is a good thing. 

It makes me feel better about the future, and less panic stricken about the possible demise of mainstream news operations (closures of venerable newsprint papers, trimming of local TV supper hour news shows, layoffs at the CBC News organization). 

According to the discussions at Brave New(s) World, news and journalism will still be happening, just perhaps in a different form then we have grown up with. 

And the summit argues there is still a need for trained news journalists who -- unlike citizen journalists so in vogue these days -- do the critical thinking, the analysis, the digging for hidden stories, and who continue to carry out the honourable tradition of "afflicting the comfortable while comforting the afflicted. "

To see some of the blogs and thoughts of people who attended the summit, please check out Melissa Feeney's rendition here: 
and the live blog by Lara Willis here.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

More on When Journalists Become News

The last blog entry I published concerned the conflict which journalists sometimes have to face – when to be a journalist, and when to not be. 

 The blog sparked a debate among some readers and I am pleased to report on some of the issues that came out of this discussion.

 But first, some clarification is in order.  The point of the blog was not to chastise current students for choosing to act in a certain way during this recent Victoria George Pazzano incident. This situation is, indeed, different then an event with another class of students, some time ago, involving a knife-carrying teen walking through the halls of the campus, and the apathy shown by some of those students to covering breaking news right under their noses.

 What I wanted the blog to explain was that I understood the conflict. And  I tried to show how I did what they did, when I was in a similar situation to the Victoria George Pazzano event (when I was working at CBC Halifax –covering the murder of a woman who turned out to be my friend’s sister.) 

 During that incident in the 1980s, I decided to remove myself from covering the story anymore, despite my ties to the family.  I knew I could not be objective. I chose friendship over journalism, and I too decided their privacy was worth more then me getting a scoop. I let someone else cover the story.

 I was never intending to do any reporting about the Victoria George Pazzano story myself using our ties to her family and Centennial College; i.e. interview our student who is her sister, for my own professional purposes.

 The blog was simply to point out that it's a tough call sometimes, and the public needs to understand this struggle between wanting to answer the professional requirements of a journalist's training and balancing that with good taste and someone's privacy.  That it's a struggle sometimes for a journalist NOT to tell a story, when we are trained to always try our best to tell the story, because that is our calling and our public trust.

 Another example.

 Years ago, when a close relative was doing a big legal contract in New Brunswick, and told me about it, and I was working for CBC in New Brunswick at the time, it would have been a big scoop for me to report it. Hundreds of new jobs were about to be announced in a depressed community. But this person’s career could have been destroyed if I reported it (same last names, d-uh).

 I realized that, and promised this person I would keep the tip private, and I never reported it. It wasn't worth ruining this person's life/or my relationship with this person. 

  This is still true.  Few stories ever are, except health hazards, nuclear war, and perhaps imminent destruction or terrorism. But those are rare events in a journalist's life.

  Did I want to report it with every fibre of my soul? Yes! It was killing me. But it wasn't worth it, so after some thought, I chose to stay silent.

 Did my journalism students now do right by not reporting and exploiting their friendship with Victoria George’s sister? Of course. Did their instincts as journalists make them WANT to write about the story? I hope so.

 And as a teacher, I hope this serves as a talking point in an ethics lesson. If someone has an "in" with a newsmaker, but is too close to this newsmaker to feel comfortable/ethical being the journalist, what are the steps that can be taken as an alternative?

 1) Wait and do it later?

2) Get someone not related or involved to do the story?

3) Not do the story?

 Feedback, as always, is welcome.



Thursday, May 7, 2009

When Journalists become the news: Victoria George Pazzano

I went to the visitation for Victoria George-Pazzano yesterday, the young Toronto mother who died after suffering an asthma attack while on vacation in Mexico. The one who's family had so much trouble bringing her back to Toronto because of the swine flu fears.
Victoria's sister Caroline George is one of my students in the post-graduate journalism program at Centennial College in Toronto.
I wasn't aware of the connection right away between my own small world and the woman making headlines on the front page of the newspapers; it took about a week until my colleague Lindy Oughtred figured it out after learning about the flurry of emails from our students who are in Caroline's class. 
But once we discovered Victoria was our student's older sister, two things happened: I felt terrible for Caroline and the ordeal her family was going through. But I also wanted our students to be reporters, and use their connection to Caroline to tell another part of the big news story, from a perspective no one in the mainstream media could have possibly known about.
When I suggested this be done, some of the students looked uncomfortable. They were more concerned with sending flowers, organizing trips to the funeral home, and supporting Caroline.
I think even my colleague felt my suggestion of "Write a story about it" seemed a bit awkward and perhaps, even, in poor taste.
In the end, I don't think anyone has done a story yet about Caroline, despite our campus having a student newspaper, an online newspaper called the Toronto Observer, a radio station Observer Radio news, and many Twitter accounts and blogs.
This reminded me of an incident in the fall that happened at school: a young man was caught by the security guard with a 7 in long hunting knife. He'd been carrying it while casually walking through the halls of our campus, at the Centre for Creative Communications, where the Journalism school is located, at 951 Carlaw Avenue, in Toronto. I found out about it because I saw the knife at the front security desk, and asked what had happened, and found out the incident was still underway. The suspect had just been apprehended and was being escorted off campus.
So I ran back to the Observer Newsroom, and urged someone to get out to the lobby and cover the story. No one moved. They were working on other assignments, they had other things to do.
Finally, Paula Barreiros grabbed her notebook and tape recorder and went out to see what was going on.
Eventually, she got some quotes, and wrote the story for our online Observer edition.
The real story was that the mild-mannered security guard who we all see and love ever day, Ravi, had acted like a hero and saved the day.
It infuriated me that when the Journalism school became the centre of a news story right under its nose, all but one of the students (who I already consider journalists), showed they were really just students first, journalists second.
Which brings me to the point of this blog. 
For some reason, our journalism program has been privileged to have taught several students in the last two years who's personal lives have been played out on the front pages of Canada's newspapers: 
1) Caroline George, sister of Victoria George Pazzano.
2) Andrew Serba, brother of the late Michael Serba, a university student on a visit home who was killed by a drug addict in a laneway. Andrew kept up with his studies last fall all while the trial of the accused was before the courts, and in the newspapers. He's working at Inside Toronto.
3) Lera Thomas, who's brother was killed last fall, although I don't have many details.
She's now working at House and Home.

There is one more to tell you about: the murder happened more than 20 years ago, in Toronto, to a woman who was stabbed to death by a man who escaped from a half way house.
I first became personally connected to this story, and to the victim's family, while I was working for CBC in Halifax in the mid 1980s. The victim was Tema Conter, but she originally came from Halifax. I was assigned to cover the story, but because I was friends with her brother Howard, a physician, and his wife Karen, I decided it was too hard to remain objective. At the time, I remember choosing instead to throw away my mantle of journalistic objectivity, and I helped my friends field telephone calls from the media, and acted as a kind of gatekeeper for them, while the investigation was underway. Ironically, Howard and Karen's daughter Jenna is now studying for her post-graduate Journalism diploma with me, here at Centennial, and is a classmate of Caroline George.

Did I do right with the Conter murder? No one at work back then at the CBC penalized me or suspended me for my actions. At the time, I felt it was the right thing to do. Friendship over journalism.

But journalistic instincts will always kick in first, for me anyway. 

They did even yesterday at the visitation for Victoria George. 

I had a long chat with Victoria's mother, who is an incredibly gracious and spellbinding woman, mother of four, who shared with me her anxieties about her oldest daughter's life long battle with asthma (My oldest son is an asthmatic who has also been hospitalized many times and has come "close" twice so I understood her constant vigilance with Victoria and her sleepless nights and listening to her child breathe).

I asked Mrs. George if any politicians from Ontario had turned up, especially from the Health Ministry, which has some serious explaining to do about why there were no beds available for her dying oldest daughter Victoria.  She said that no one from the Health ministry had sent a card or flowers, but then she pointed to the front of the room at the Ogden Funeral Home. 

"Jack Layton sent those," she said.

And indeed, there was a delicate bouquet of white roses and about to bloom white tulips with a card from Jack Layton on the table.

So now with this blog about the visitation,  I've done it again. I've shared what I saw and heard, of someone's private life. I do it, because not only does it help me make sense of a tragic event, but perhaps it will shed some light for other people about the headlines they read but may not feel connected to.
And I hope it will reveal an example of the conflict which journalists often face as they live their lives: their struggle to balance what for me have always been roaring journalistic instincts, with the quest many people have for personal privacy. 

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Blue Rodeo and Michael Kaeshammer and chewing gum

At a concert at the Glenn Gould Theatre in Toronto last night, my friend introduced me to the talents of an amazing young Canadian jazz musician named Michael Kaeshammer. It was a belated birthday present to me: she treated me to the show. 
For those of you in the know, I won't tell you how he used to open for Sophie Millman and Anne Murray, but now is big enough and famous enough to fill what MC Jaymz Bee called "soft seat" concert halls across Canada. 
So what does this have to do with Blue Rodeo and journalism?Interviewing?
Kaeshammer told the audience he was planning to come to the lobby after the show to sign autographs for World Vision, and to mingle, and that he even hoped to finagle an invitation to a party, since he said he wasn't doing anything after the show ended!
And it got me to thinking about what I would ask him, if I accidentally happened to bump into him while he was "schmoozing."
It reminded me of the time I was in this same predicament a couple of summers ago, while on vacation with my family in Prince Edward Island.
My husband and I had bought tickets to see Blue Rodeo play at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown. The event was going to be even more enticing because some friends of ours from Toronto knew the band, and had scored a backstage pass for us to meet the band after the show.
I remember spending the whole concert half listening to the music, and mostly wracking my brain for some inspiration about what I would ask Jim Cuddy so I wouldn't sound like a groupie or a bumbling awestruck fan.
And then it came to me while I was watching Cuddy and Greg Keelor chomping on chewing gum while they were performing. It struck me as odd, rude even, that such a big name band would be so disrespectful of their audience, that they wouldn't even spit out their gum before taking the stage.
So when the time came for us to crowd by the stage door, and jostle for photographs, I have to admit I was nervous. What if Cuddy thought I was an idiot for asking such a question?
When they came out, and the introductions were made, I went ahead and asked him about the gum issue. And I got a really interesting answer: he told me that at his age, he had to chew gum to keep his throat lubricated, so he doesn't lose his voice while he sings. 
A few months later, back home in Toronto, the Star and Globe both ran stories about Cuddy having problems with his vocal chords, even having to stop singing for a while to have surgery. 
So my question was bang on. Too bad I wasn't writing a story for CTV at the time. I didn't even have a blog then.
Nevertheless as far as I was concerned, gum or no gum, he still had -- and has-- a sweet voice.
I should've asked him what kind of gum works best-- and what his favourite flavour was, and how long did one piece last during a concert?
As for Kaeshammer, we left before I got myself into trouble. And I'd be glad to hear any suggestions on what you would have asked him.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Teaching Interviewing: My students teach me.

Ciaran Thompson, and Shawn Starr interview Olympic gold medallist in hockey Vicky Sunohara at Centennial College journalism program

I teach an Advanced Interviewing course at Centennial College school of Journalism every winter -- 15 weeks of teaching students that interviewing is an art.

And every year, during the first hour of class, I thank the students for the privilege of being their teacher for this course.

Teaching it helps ME be a better journalist; going over with THEM the techniques and tricks and skills and thought which is needed to conduct a satisfying and successful interview always helps ME do a better job in my own interviews.

And it has.

This month, I've had to interview some prominent Canadians, for my husband's new accounting textbook.

Today was the Auditor General of Canada Sheila Fraser. Last week was Ian Clarke, Vice President of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment. Next week it will be Mark Powell of Boston Pizza.

All have been interviewed a million times before.

So I've been even more diligent then usual preparing for these interviews because, as I tell my students, good sit down interviews of prominent guests need to be handled more carefully then an everyday scrum with the Mayor does.

The interviewer needs to find something to break the ice, to connect with the guest, to keep them engaged, and to try to get at "feeling level" responses (not the "If this is about my new movie, Press 1" kind of answer which movie stars have to give on press interview junkets).

So I practiced what I preached: I spent hours researching the guests. I read everything I could get my hands on, online - going back 10 years. I watched interviews they'd done on Strombo, or with trade magazines, and professional magazines. I even stalked their family members on Facebook, without making contact, of course. And on Twitter. Then I thought up questions which I hoped would be different then the usual ones they've answered a million times already. Or expand on an issue they'd talked about before.

And then I did the next steps -- steps my students have been learning to do: I wore a suit, I showed up super early at the locations. I checked my video camera and microphone and tape recorder to make sure they all worked, I scoped out the rooms where the interviews were to be conducted, and made friends with the receptionists.

While there, although I already had prepared a couple of icebreakers, I observed my surroundings to see if there were any cool things in their buildings which I could refer to as ice breakers or during the interview itself.

With Ian Clarke, of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, since he and I are about the same age, and we both are ex Montrealers who both have 2 boys who both play hockey, and since he went to university where my cousin was a professor, I thought that might be good to establish rapport.

I had also prepared a second ice breaker: about his kids. I told him that my father is a lawyer, but when we were growing up, he wasn't the coolest show-and-tell parent to bring to school -- being a lawyer wasn't nearly as cool as the father who owned the clothing factory with the most popular fashions at the time like Debbie Wexelman's father, who gave her all the latest sweaters and shirts from Razzle Dazzle and Jump for Charlie. So I asked him whether his kids thought their father's job was the best show-and-tell father at school, i.e. having access to the players on the Leafs, the Raptors, the Marlies, and free tickets to all the rock concerts at the ACC they could ever want.

Our chat went on for about 30 minutes. We talked about who the coolest person he'd met in his career was (Bobby Orr), how he'd like to meet President Barack Obama, how the only performer he went backstage to meet was Tina Turner, how going to build homes in New Orleans after the Hurricane was "life changing". And about leadership.

I tried to make it a conversation. It was intense. I gave him my best "George Strombo" intense eye contact and listening. When it was over, I felt privileged to have met him. Maybe I rambled too much.

With the Auditor General, it wasn't as easy to figure out how to break the ice. Although she's been interviewed a million times, there isn't much about her personal interests, or her non-work hobbies or interests, on line.

I canvassed my students this week to ask for their suggestions. One said I should play word games. Another said to bring a jar of jellybeans and ask her to audit how many are in the jar. I thought that was brilliant, but my husband kyboshed it as undignified.

So then I remembered my research and it came to me. Give her something she doesn't know. Kind of like a gift. I thought I could try the icebreaker by telling her about the Twitter messages I've seen about her, and give her the printed copy of it, which says she looks like she never has any fun. And also the website called Love.Com that has a fan page about her. And then ask her if she'd ever seen the You Tube cartoons by Nelvana (the folks who brought us Franklin the Turtle) about Harold Rosenbaum, Accountant Extraordinaire who fights crime with his audit bag and calculator.

So I did all this. I also admitted up front that, despite my 28 years in the business, I wasn't sure what would work with her to break the ice, and could she help me?

And it seemed to have worked. She was very gracious, and we then proceeded to talk for half an hour about her work, my kids, her kids, our travels, and her plans, as well as weaving questions in there about the job, how she got mono and strep throat at 17 and how that led her to become an accountant, and her feelings about being the "Mick Jagger" of the accounting profession, as one newspaper called her. We discussed bodyguards, favourite TV shows, divorce, and women's issues. It felt like a conversation. I hope it did for her too. I only looked at my questions twice, at the end of the interview, to make sure I'd covered everything I needed.

And I admit that once during the interview, while she was talking, I was thinking about the next question. And I blanked out. I couldn't remember what I wanted to ask her. Yikes! But then I started listening to her even more closely, and it came to me just in the nick of time, and I mirrored back to her some of her answer, and moved to what she could remember about her first audit job as an intern fresh out of accounting school.

At the end of the interview, my students helped me in yet another way. Yesterday they were watching the cool video of that British woman who sang Les Miserables on Britain's Got Talent and surprised Simon Cowell because she was so plain with a unibrow, but a voice to make goosebumps on anyone who listens to her. And so I watched it in class with them. And today, when we were discussing new technology, I asked her if she had seen this video. She hadn't. So later today, when I got home, I sent her a thank you note by email, with the link to watch that video of Susan Boyle.

So, once again, I thank my students for always teaching me more then I teach them.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Imagine - The new exhibit by Yoko Ono in Montreal

(Photos by Brenda Bessner. 1) Ellin listening to the interviews through a speaker on the famous Bed  2.) Ellin playing "Imagine" at the exhibit)

I used to hate Yoko Ono.

When I was growing up, we blamed her for breaking up the Beatles, and for being too out there, too weird, too avant garde.  

Now I know she and John Lennon were just ahead of their time. By about 40 years. 

I've just seen the exhibit in Montreal commemorating the 40th anniversary of the famous "Bed In" for peace put on by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Montreal's Queen Elizabeth Hotel.
That's when they held court in a hotel bed for a week, inviting journalists, artists, religious leaders and other musicians to create music and share their vision of peace.

Now, after seeing exhibit, and marveling at who went to see it --- the young children with their parents, the older couples, the three generations,  the all kinds of colours and races of people who attended the free exhibit ---- I think people are now finally ready to listen to what John and Yoko were saying all those years ago. 

You walk in to the exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and you hear John and Yoko calling to each other. It is a bit weird, and I thought "Oh no. Here's more of that weird Yoko stuff which I used to hate when I was growing up." Performance art. Public participation art.

So I took a pass on hammering a nail into that white canvas. And I didn't climb the ladder to see the art that was on the ceiling (you get a different perspective on the art from up high). And seeing them naked posing for photos back when they were just newlyweds, seemed more of the same provocative art they always did, which to me, used to feel phony.

But when you move through to the next room, and see the BED, and they let you actually lie on it, I was able to stay there for a long time, quietly, tossing off my shoes, and I watched at length,  some of their famous bed-interviews with journalists, actors, spiritual leaders and other intelligentsia of the day. 

That's when I started to feet the bed-in maybe wasn't just another one of their self-promoting publicity stunts. They were just being like today's modern day stars, who throw their massive influence behind charities and causes they feel must be promoted.  Think of Brad Pitt (Make It Right foundation to rebuild New Orleans) or Bono, or Bob Geldof who put together Live Aid for Africa. 

The world of the 60's and early 70's just wasn't interested in what John and Yoko were trying to do, which is promote the end of the Vietnam war, promote tolerance, promote respect, and promote freedom.  

In the next room, exhibit goers can see the actual hand written lyrics to "Happy Christmas (The War is Over)" and see Lennon's hand drawn sketches, his anti-war videos, and documents showing his struggles with U.S. and Toronto immigration authorities who basically thought he was a terrorist. You can see John and Yoko declaring their Nutopia republic, a land with no passports, no borders, no flag.

The next room lets you sit down at a white piano and play Imagine (it has hard chords!). I watched a white mustache-sporting father try to teach his biracial daughter how to play the left hand chords while he played the right hand melody. The father was wiping away his tears when they were done.

Next room is where Yoko Ono has created new art pieces just for this show. One is a tree of wishes, where people can write a wish on a tag, then tie it to the tree. The trees were crammed with these beige tags fluttering as museum goers passed by. I wrote "Peace is Good" which is what my husband and I used to say to each other when we first met, after some tumultuous previous adventures we both had.

The next room had maps plastered all over the walls, and stamps attached to them with strings. You can stamp "Imagine Peace" anywhere you wish. It made me so happy to see the darkest areas with the most stamps were the Middle East.

I stamped there, too, and I stamped my own hand, to try to take a little of Yoko Ono and John Lennon's message out with me, to make it last. And to comfort me.

I've needed comfort. In recent weeks and months, it's been hard to cope with the barrage of constant violence in the world, the terrorism in Mumbai, the fighting in Gaza, the suicide bombers in Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan, the growing anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment in Toronto, and the unbearable unending injustice in Darfur, to name a few.  The message of "Imagine"  takes on so much more relevance and power.

Take your kids and your parents to see it. Take your grandparents. You'll all end up leaving the exhibit humming "All we are saying, is give peace a chance". 

Monday, March 16, 2009

Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer and CTV Newsnet

Anyone seen last week's "The Daily Show" episode where Jon Stewart interviewed Jim Cramer from Mad Money about his responsibility to the viewers as a business commentator?

Watching it brought back memories of my days as a business anchor/editor and interviewer with CTV Newsnet from 1998 to 2005, and on Canada's Business Report, a syndicated daily radio show from Canada News Wire.

The job was hectic: I did a dozen half-hourly newscasts a day, plus interviews with business newsmakers. Sometimes I would be ad-libbing my reports from the floor of the TSX in Toronto. Other times, I'd be stool-to- stool on the TSX Mezzanine conducting 6 minute long interviews with CEOs, CFOs, analysts and economists. Or I'd be down at the Report on Business Television studio, (now called BNN) doing the business news as well as supper hour and late night business reports for CTV affiliate stations across the country.

Some of the criticism which I heard Jon Stewart levy against financial journalists in general, about this current economic recession, was that these big name prominent TV journalists somehow "knew" what was going on with the sub prime mortgages, Asset Backed Paper fiasco, and all the unsustainable growth in commodities stocks that it seemed could go on forever....but didn't report on any of this to their viewers, and somehow, were in "cahoots" with the Wall Street titans of industry.

Personally, I can say I only came under any kind of "pressure" not to report about a business story, ONCE, in all my time on the CTV Newsnet business desk.

It involved some "less then positive news" about BCE, the parent company that owned CTV and its media empire including Newsnet. I don't recall whether the news which I had wanted to report involved some disappointing quarterly financial results, or an unfavourable CRTC ruling, but I do know that the story would have painted BCE in a negative light. It was true. And on the wires. But I was told not to deliver the story that way, but rather, just state the numbers, and move on. Use 'neutral' words etc, since they own us.

I remember being piqued at this. Yes we always had to say on air in our stories about BCE that they were "the parent company of CTV Newsnet", or some form of disclaimer. But that was the only time when I actually came face to face with pressure from within about how to report a story about the folks who signed my paycheque. And yes, I did what I was told, for the record.

As for being "in cahoots" with the titans of industry, I can say from my vantage point that I never saw my colleagues at CTV Newsnet or BNN, including Linda Sims, Mike Eppel, Susan Ormiston, Howard Green, Martin Cej, the late Jim O'Connell and others, ever take bribes from corporate execs, or do potentially sleazy unethical journalistic practises when doing their jobs.

Amanda Lang was married to a big mover and shaker in the gold business, and Kevin O'Leary invested his own money in the markets while being a commentator on air. But that's hardly being "in cahoots".

What I did see were frantically busy business journalists trying to do as good a job as they could with impossible deadlines, as they had to fill the demands of a 24 hour news channel. So you do as much research and preparation as possible for your next hit, within the time that you have. And we certainly weren't "taking Wall Street/Bay Street's word for it", as Jon Stewart alleges.

I know my job required tons of reading and journalistic research (in off hours as well as during the 9 hour shift): here's just some of the research that I did during a usual day in order to try to put financial stories in context for myself and my viewers: check all the daily newspaper business pages (Globe, Star, FInancial Post, National Post, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal), and their online websites for updates, read endless corporate financial statements, analysts' reports, investment bank economic research, search news paper archives, check financial websites with analysis such as Morningstar, GlobeInvestorGold, Bloomberg's wire service, Hoovers, Dow Jones, Canada News Wire press releases, listen to web conferences of annual meetings, read economic indicator reports from the Canadian and U.S. governments, Bank of Canada reports, SEC filings, CEDAR and other Canadian regulatory agencies filings, reports from Statistics Canada, from European banks, the OECD, auto industry analysts, JD Powers, Retail Council of canada, the CRTC, court rulings on bankruptcies and restructuring, etc etc.

Whew. I'm sure I'm missing more.

There's more: our producers and researchers were business experts in their own right: Bruno Malta had passed the Canadian Securities Course, and eventually left to work as a financial advisor at BMO. If even more background or checking was needed, we did what all good journalists are supposed to do: we went directly to our sources, asked for clarification, and explanation. Then we checked with alternate sources -- policy wonks, brokers, consumers, politicians, professors, analysts.

And when I needed even more background, about a financial statement I thought was strange, I checked with my personal experts: this included the most experienced accounting expert I know -- my husband, a CA and PhD who has been teaching accounting for over 25 years and runs the Accounting program at UOIT now, and was with York's Schulich School of Business for many years before this, and has written 3 textbooks on Financial Accounting.

If it involved law, I checked with --a lawyer in Montreal specializing in corporate and intellectual property --practicing law for 47 years-- my Dad Morton Bessner! And also with a litigation lawyer in Toronto from Gowlings who is a sought after author and trains financial advisors how not to get sued --my cousin Ellen J. Bessner (she shares my name but spells it differently).

Some of you may say this all sounds like an excuse for justifying a serious failure: Jon Stewart's charge that some business journalists were so busy "feeding the goat" as it's called, churning out a dozen newscasts a day, entertaining the audience, that they are just too darn busy or lazy to really do a proper job digging up the dirt.

Still others may say that some business journalists don't have enough understanding of how the market really works in order to see dirt and scandal that former Wall Street insiders like Jim Cramer are accused of knowing.

From where I see it, Jon Stewart's allegations are really a sad indictment of modern day journalism -- especially investigative journalism in the 21st century.

Newsrooms who give their reporters time and money to carry out these vital checks and balances on authority, are few and far between. CBC Radio's I unit run by Suzane Reber is one of the few remaining spaces for this kind of work. W5 and the Fifth estate also do this. But for the rest, and their 24 hour news cycles, it's less about breaking exclusive stories and leading the pack with enterprise journalism, and more about "feeding the machine" and "matching" what other outlets have.
It's often more about "light, bright and tight" celebrity obsessed gossip/news, instead of valuable but perhaps less exciting and way more time consuming journalism on issues that impact millions of people.

Much has been said about how the U.S. media acted in a similar way under the previous Bush administration, buying into the Weapons of Mass Destruction propaganda that led to the war in Iraq.

It's a sad thing to see. And I am not optimistic that things will improve soon --despite Jon Stewart's outraged howling wakeup call to our industry -- with the current havoc this recession is causing in the traditional model of television news and newspapers.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Where are the Journalism Jobs?

Peter Mansbridge meeting Centennial TV students 2008. UTSC/Centennial grad Mahesh Abeywardene, reporter for The Lanka Reporter in Toronto.

It seems everywhere you turn these days, you hear more and more stories of station closures and cutbacks in local news programming, layoffs at newspapers, and hiring freezes at the CBC and other places. For members of the information industry, especially journalism students, this must be a scary time. For those colleagues who have already been laid off or bought out, ditto.
The issue -- let's call it a crisis -- is not just water-cooler talk. It permeates much of our daily conversation in the halls of the journalism school at Centennial College in Toronto, where I teach.

But with the dark clouds, there is, to be cliched, a silver lining at the (gulp) end of the rainbow for journalism jobs.

1) Young and cheap is a good thing.

When the free daily Metro laid off all it's paid media workers recently, including some of our former students, to let the paper be put out by interns only, we decided as a faculty not to send anymore students on placement there. One reason is to protest the "work for free" trend of papers relying on cheap but inexperienced newcomers who haven't got the life experience or journalism experience that more seasoned veterans bring to the product.

But the bad news this symbolized for what we hope will always be an attempt to strive towards excellence in journalism, is also a beacon of hope to those journalism students about to go out on the job market, and to those, like the bright young high school students I met yesterday at a recruiting session at the University of Toronto/Centennial College joint journalism program, who hope the market snaps back by the time four years from now, that they are ready to look for work.

Here's the bright light: a colleague of mine who used to work at the National Post says the layoffs and attrition now decimating jobs in that newspaper, mean journalists who are "of a certain age", let's say in their mid-50s, are being bought out or given early retirement, which will allow news companies to save those big salaries, and go out to hire young, inexperienced, but keen and cheaper recent journalism graduates.

At the Vaughan Today newspaper, run by Multimedia Nova corporation,which also publishes the Town Crier newspapers, and Corriere Canadese, a recent graduate of our program is now the city editor, after less then 2 years out of school, another grad is Online editor, same time frame, and a third with 3 years out of school is one of their staff. Granted, these are talented, passionate journalists, but it took me, aged 47 now, from 1983 to 1995 working in Fredericton, Moncton, Halifax, Ottawa, Montreal and overseas for several years in Italy, for CBC, before I made it as a reporter for CBC in Toronto (the big time!).

2) Talent will still rise to the top.

With newspaper advertising drying up again, and a broadcast advertising drought again prompting big media companies to retrench, as they did when I was in j-school in the early 1980s, during the last recession, it seems a bit like deja vu now. Back then, I was one of 6 journalism students hired straight out of university (Carleton B.J. 1983) by the CBC TV's wonderful training department to work in newsrooms for the summer across the country. Yes it was a recession. But not to blow my own horn too much, I was chosen along with these other students: (they are pretty famous) Howard Green (BNN), Tom Spears (CBC Calgary), Susan Bonner (CBC TV National reporter). If you are good, and keen, and job search with tenacity, you will get work.

As Rita Shelton Deverell, journalist, author, actor, voice coach, and storyteller in residence at Centennial, told a class of students two weeks ago, be the kind of reporter who, when you submit a story to the editor by deadline, gets this response: "I love you!" because the story needs very little editing, very little work. Make your editors' lives easier.

David Downey of CBC Radio (national news in Toronto) this week told my radio news students at Centennial (post grad program) that news managers will still hire the creme de la creme, when and how they can. So if you are talented, and work hard, are passionate about storytelling, and are willing to travel, then there is hope for finding work, even during these tough times.

3) Online is the new "black".

If you are going to be trying to get work, managing editors and hiring managers want students who can do more then just print reporting, or just photography. Be able to shoot a video, edit it, perform an on camera, do a radio news report, take a photo, and post a story on line...all in one day. More and more, all these forms of storytelling are moving online.

At Canadian Press in Toronto, Managing editor for Ontario Wendy McCann says her reporters, like Tamsyn Burgmann, have to do all those things when covering a big story. At Centennial, we are training our students to be multiplatform journalists:
they can write & take photos for their bi weekly community print newspaper, but they also can post daily stories and photos for TorontoObserver.ca, the college's online 24-7 news site. The site also publishes their audio interviews and radio reports, and has room for their their video stories which they do as well.

When post-grad student Laura Stanley, who finished her program this January and is now on internship, looked for freelance work with Durham's community newspapers earlier this year, (now run by Ian Caldwell former CTV Toronto assignment editor), not only was he impressed that she could take photos for the print editions, but that she could also shoot, edit and write and report TV News stories as well, for his website.

Our journalism school's online news site are run by Eric McMillan, managing editor of Town Crier and its online sites, Irene Thomaidis, who is an online editor for Sun media, and Phil Alvez, online editor at Vaughan Citizen, and also by by Ted Barris, a published author of military history books, and a blogger, and broadcaster, and by Neil Ward, formerly with the A-section and Sports at the National Post doing nightly editing and layout and an online editor, as well as page editor, for the Royal Gazette in Bermuda. Gary Graves of CBC.ca teaches online posting of all forms of content, and our students' work is prominently displayed on several online sites:

1. Toronto Observer.ca
2. CentennialJournalism
3. Centennial Journalism on You Tube
4. Observer Radio
5. Observer TV

For years, the course which required students to conceive, design, report, write, and publish their very own "niche" specialty magazine, only required them to print glossy hard copies. Now the course requires a strong online component.

The introduction to news reporting class now also requires proficiency in audio editing and field interviewing using a digital camera and a digital audio recorder.

The online imaging course requires students to create a website for their photos.

Our Radio and TV courses all product live to air newscasts for our online news channel over the Internet.

There is a lot more.

But it gives you an idea that journalism schools which make sure their students have the strong fundamentals combined with the knowledge of how to tell stories online, should be producing graduates who will either find work in existing media outlets, or, create their own news sites and start ups.

NOTE: Monday March 9 2009 the Ontario Association of Broadcasters is holding a Career Day in Toronto where 24 of my students and I will participate in their round tables, with hiring managers. It should be interesting to hear from the head honchos, what advice they are giving journalism students. I'll try to update this blog, afterwards.

4) Diversity and ethnic media are flourishing.

A recent report on CBC Radio in Toronto says if you want jobs in the news media, consider working for the ethnic news outlets. According to the report, they are flourishing, and ad revenue is strong. With students in journalism school increasingly from diverse backgrounds, ethnicity is now a plus to get work. If you speak another language, why not look for jobs with OMNI TV, the Chinese dailies, the Iranian and other webnews sites operating in the Greater Toronto area. Here is a link to the story, by CBC's Priya Sankaran.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Wake Up Italian Style

Wake Up Italian Style -- in Canada!

If you find yourself back in Canada, like I did after 6 years living and working as a foreign correspondent in Italy, and desperately missing your regular dose of Italian music, Italian news, and even your favourite Italian slang, like I do, you can get your “fix”, …..at least on the radio.

For four hours every weekday on Toronto’s CHIN Radio, (1540AM) why not tune in to their fabulous morning show called “Wake Up Italian Style”. (I admit I flip back and forth with CBC's Metro Morning, and 680 News)

It’s four hours of news, traffic, weather, and all sprinkled with banter, jokes, and interviews by the cheery hosts Edoardo Monasterolo and Patrizia Di Vincenzo. Monasterolo is a recent import to Toronto, having grown up in the Cuneo area of Italy, in Bra (CN) just south of Turin. He was already a popular house DJ in clubs in the Piedmont area, and hosted a radio show there as well, before deciding to move to T.O in 2006.

Edo is the main announcer—he’s also the petulant member of the morning duo. It’s his schtick. He assumes characters in different Italian dialects, and although most of the show is in Italian, often he breaks out his best fractured Italian-English such as “beckayard” for “back yard” and “garbiccio” for “garbage”, and he loves to sprinkle his segues to the latest pop tunes from San Remo with his trademark “Beau-tee-fool!”

If Edo is the Don Cherry of the team, then Patrizia Di Vincenzo is his Ron McLean. She’s the more serious on air personality, and does the traffic updates, and brings in bits of news and gossip to discuss with Edo and the technician who operates the board.

For me, listening to Wake Up Italian Style helps in many ways: I feel as though I’m driving around the Grande Raccordo in Rome stuck in traffic, although instead of slowdowns on the via Appia, it’s the Don Valley Parkway. They even use the same theme music to do traffic that I used to hear in Rome on the radio frequency GR2 when I lived there.

I also like how I get to hear modern popular Italian language and slang, so I don’t forget my Italian, even though here in T.O. I get very little chance to use it. It helped tremendously this past summer as we spent six weeks with the kids traveling across Italy in June and July, and my Italian was fluent. It was like taking a crash Berlitz refresher, but Wake Up Italian Style is free!

When we were in Italy, this summer, my kids were often glued to MTV Italy watching the latest music videos, and we fell in love with the tunes that were on the summer play list of 2008: Giusy Ferreri, Jovanotti, Cesare Cremonini. Listening to Wake Up Italian Style keeps me in the loop about the newest entries in the Italian music charts. And they also play some oldies, which remind me of my “wild oats” during my years living in Italy 1988 to 1994.

The music ranges from Nek, and Ramazotti to Gianni Morandi’s most recent album, to an old Antonello Venditti classic, to Laura Pausini and Michael Buble’s duet singing “You’ll Never Find” – that's the Canadian content!

They also have news on the hour and half hour, both local and from Italy, including reports from RAI international, so I can keep abreast of the latest Berlusconian quip, the David Beckham will-he-or-won’t-he with Milan, and the national debate over Eluana.

Plus you get tips on which Italian entertainers are coming to perform in town. Zucchero came last fall. So did Massimo Ranieri, but if they play his song “Rose rosse” one more time, I think I will drive off the road in frustration.

Am I the typical listener? Probably not, since the target audience is between 40 and 70, according to a recent blog entry, and you can tell, when you listen to the people who call in for contests, that they are mainly older, first generation Italian Canadians who now live in Woodbridge. But for me, Wake Up Italian Style fills a need, sort of like a good piatto di pasta and a glass of wine on a warm summer Roman afternoon. “Bee-youti-fool!”

Here’s how to contact them: wakeup@chinradio.com or call at 416-531-9991 ex2410

CHIN radio is on in Toronto on 1540 A.M., 100.7 F.M., and in Ottawa as well on 97.9 FM.